Uprooting the ‘Chinese Jasmine Revolution’

The Globe and Mail writes about why Ai Weiwei, the well-connected artist and activist, suddenly found that he was no longer “untouchable” in the current crackdown on dissent in China:

A Hong Kong newspaper reported on Thursday that police are preparing charges related to bigamy and distributing pornography. But few doubt that his real offence was offending those who rule China.

Mr. Ai’s arrest is the most prominent example of a widening crackdown on dissent in China that is the harshest since Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games.

It’s not clear what exactly prompted the Communist Party’s tough new line toward its critics, though most trace it to mysterious online calls earlier this year for Chinese to stage a Middle East-inspired “jasmine revolution.” Though few protesters actually showed up at the chosen demonstration sights, the online chatter seemed to spook the country’s leaders.

Some observers expect the clampdown could last through the sensitive transition period of 2012 and 2013, when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will hand power to a new generation of leaders.

As the crackdown continues, Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer who has worked for Ai, and Liu Zhenggang, a designer who worked at his studio have also gone missing. From the Guardian:

Friends have not been able to reach for almost 24 hours. The rights lawyer posted a message on a microblog at 8pm on Thursday saying he was being “followed by identified people”. His phone is switched off.

Last week he said he would “of course” act for Ai if requested. He spent several hours at a police station on the day Ai disappeared, although his brief detention did not appear to relate to the artist. It occurred after he requested to visit a female activist and officers reportedly berated him for tweeting about another missing lawyer.

Separately, a letter issued online on Friday said plainclothes police seized designer Liu Zhenggang, 49, at his home in Beijing on 9 April and no one had been able to reach him since. Liu worked for FAKE, the design and architecture firm that handles Ai’s affairs and belongs to the artist’s wife.

Police did not respond to queries about the two men.

The Christian Science Monitor reminds us that Ai is but one of more than 100 activists, lawyers, bloggers, and others who have been detained, disappeared, or confined to their homes in the current crackdown. China Human Rights Defenders has reported that 54 people have been detained. Reuters reports on Ni Yulan, a rights lawyer who was detained this week.

Meanwhile, the official party mouthpiece the Global Times insists that the West is at fault for criticizing the Chinese government for Ai’s detention, and says, “China has entered an era of unprecedented political tolerance”:

Outwardly, some Western media insists the arrest is “not lawful in procedure.” At heart, it tries to politicize the case, aiming to stir up those who are dissatisfied with the nation. The West lacks the patience to discuss law, but has an interest in playing political games with China.

Since we are not legal experts, it would be more dangerous for us to discuss the issue of “procedural justice” without obtaining the details of Ai’s case. With the socialist legal system improving daily in China, no ordinary citizen, let alone a celebrity like Ai, can be detained with an unwarranted charge. Even if there might be some loopholes involved in Ai’s custody, as some have speculated, they should be discussed in the framework of the law. Both the West and a small number of people in China are attempting in vain to persuade the whole of society to draw a conclusion that the government is persecuting pro-democracy figures in China.

That is not the real picture in the country.

The fact is that many public intellectuals, including some artists, have become well-known in recent years due to their sharp comments toward the government. Ai is but one recent example. The majority of this group has enjoyed the freedom to criticize almost everything, bringing them both fame and wealth. China has entered an era of unprecedented political tolerance.